standard and nonstandard words

Just because a word appears in a dictionary, that doesn’t necessarily mean you should use it in your writing.

There’s a difference between “standard” and “nonstandard” words. For example, words like “alright” and “dunno” may appear in some dictionaries (on my computer “alright” appears correct, while “dunno” shows up as a mistake), but that’s simply because these are misspellings or contractions that have slipped into common usage. That does not mean they are correct.

The word “alright” is a short form of “all right”, and is so commonly misspelled it even appears in dictionaries now. But most good dictionaries will refer to it as nonstandard. What does that mean? Simply that it’s acceptable for use in informal writing or even dialogue, but not for formal professional writing.

For example, having a character say, “I dunno if she’s alright,” is fine. It’s part of dialogue, and can help the reader hear the voice of the character. But to say she was alright in the main body of the text is fundamentally incorrect.

Honestly, this is something I only learned of recently. In the past, I just assumed that any word in the dictionary was a word that I could use in my writing. But even though I use “alright”, “dunno”, and “ok” in emails to my friends or even in blog posts, I would never even consider using any of them in my scientific writing. And that’s the difference.

English is a fascinating language. And yes, new words are being added every year. The language is evolving. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t rules, and that any word can be used at any time. Context is important. Abbreviations such as “LOL” or “btw” should not appear anywhere in the book, unless it’s an excerpt from an email or message. Likewise slang should not be used unless it’s part of the dialogue.

I know that there are people out there who will disagree with me on this. That’s fine. But it’s important to mention that I’m not the one you need to worry about. If you’re a serious writer and serious about having writing as a profession, you’re going to have to deal with editors and publishers. And readers. And regardless of what you may or may not think is right or wrong, they are going to know what’s right and wrong, and they will judge you accordingly. And that’s why it’s important to know the difference between standard and nonstandard words.

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About Critical Awesomeness
I'm a 32-year-old American with a PhD in chemistry and a green hat. Only one of these two things is really important.

10 Responses to standard and nonstandard words

  1. That’s pretty good advice, Andy. There is an exception to the “only in dialogue” rule, however; if the story is narrated by the character, especially in first person, then it is desirable to write in the voice of the character—slang, dialect, and all. One of my stories, narrated by a fourteen-year-old country girls starts: I cain’t tell ya what I saw. It were real sick. Darn to near killed my brother. And it sure as hell ruined Christmas Valley.

  2. sirraedits says:

    Excellent post. I have to disagree with the previous comment. While what he said is true, writing in 1st POV shouldn’t give the writer the green light to run amuck with the English language. And using slangs and dialects appropriately and deliberately is different from using a wrong word or misspelling it. Like….the word alright.

  3. danniehill says:

    Great post, Andy. It seems almost anythings goes in todays writing– And that’s not correct. I happen to agree with Martin to a degree. There are times when slang, voice and dialect come in to play but it shouldn’t be overused. It is great in dialog but not to a point that makes the story difficult to read.

    Being a Southern writer I do like to use expressions from my area but you can also let the reader know where the character hails from and they will add the accents in their reading. Same goes for using foreign– non-English langages. Say, Donald spoke in Arabic… Then write it out in English. Makes it so much easier for the reader.

    As writers, we must always put the reader at the forefront of our writing..

    • I agree, Dannie. And too much slang slows the reading pace. I read it with a frown just from concentration. A hint here and there is fine to keep a sense of character, but an entire book of it is hard to chew. Especially if you’re not from the place that the dialect comes from, and you have to stop and think about what each slang sentence means before progressing.

      • You’re all right, of course. In case anybody thought I was arguing for the widespread use of dialect, however, let me make clear that I was merely pointing out that Andy’s stated rule did have an exception. And just for the record, slang (i.e. nonstandard English) becomes a dialect when it is only understood by a minority subset of the population within an ethnic or geographic concentration. Often, slang is essential to making a character sound authentic. On the other hand, dialects, as many have pointed out, can cause the reader to feel excluded, and should usually be kept to a minimum.

      • danniehill says:

        Martin. I was using your comments as a good example– and adding my own thought to it. Meant no offense. Great points.

  4. Your blog is hot these days. Good work, Andy. Since the word choices is the topic of this week on blogs and on Twitter, I thought I’d give my two cents. As a reader, of course, I can’t tell you how many times I had to throw the book into the trash because I just couldn’t wrap my brain around the language. It’s fine to use the slangs and dialects to show where the characters come from and accentuate their “voice”, but it’s another thing to write the whole book in a language only a few people would understand. Unless the writers are trying to reach the readers from a specific region or reading level, I think it’s best to stick to standard English. Even in dialogues. Some “accents” are too thick and get on my nerves. And don’t even get me started on the text lingo. I know I’m speaking for many when I say this. Writers should have formal education in English to some degree.

  5. lizamartz says:

    Great blog post, Andy. I am a firm believer in using words properly and avoiding the substandard words that have crept into common use. When I worked at Ford Motor Company a biggy was “irregardless.” It was used in professional letters and bulletins and it drove me right up a wall. On the other hand, the late former mayor of Detroit City once said, “It’s the principality of the matter.” The dude’s been gone for decades but that quote lives on in my mind and still cracks me up.

  6. Pingback: What’s In A Word? | mylittlewhims

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